In the latest twist of a legal turf battle, appellate judges ruled Tuesday a Stevens County District Court judge overstepped her legal authority when she instructed clerks to refuse to file preliminary hearing orders made by Superior Court judges.
The conflict, which may be the first of its kind in Washington, centers on which judges get to make legal decisions on any number of matters that come before them. Those decisions include the filing of protective orders by alleged victims to protect them against future assault and the conditions imposed by judges that allow the pretrial release of those persons who have been jailed.
The Division III Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that District Court Judge Gina Tveit’s “directive that the Stevens County District Court not accept preliminary appearance orders from superior court was legally erroneous,” Judge Rebecca Pennell wrote.
In Washington, district courts handle misdemeanors and minor civil cases, while superior courts handle felony and more serious civil cases. But judges from both levels of courts preside over preliminary hearings, which ensure that those who are arrested are made aware of their rights to an attorney and are given an opportunity to argue for pretrial release.
The legal battle in Stevens County began on Jan. 30, 2018, after the administrator of the Stevens County Superior Court sent an email to judges and clerks in both courts saying that all first appearances would be heard at noon each weekday by Superior Court judges Pat Monasmith and Jessica Reeves.
Three days later, District Court Judge Gina Tveit wrote an email to staff directing that “no orders be filed in a district court case unless signed by a district court judge or district court judge pro tem,” court documents state. The order meant that all preliminary orders made by Superior Court judges on cases that were directed to District Court were ignored.
Stevens County Deputy Prosecutor Will Ferguson said he’s unaware of any previous cases where county judges in two different levels of courts have refused to work with each other. The judicial discord resulted in jailers being ordered by District Court staff to keep some defendants in jail even after a Superior Court judge had ordered their release.
“I can’t say whether the general population understands how awful and terrifying it is to be put in a jail cell and learn you are not going to be released because one judge says she’s not going to follow the order of another judge,” Ferguson said. “People were being harmed by Judge Tveit’s refusal and the Court of Appeals saw the potential of more damage in the future.”
On Feb. 5, 2018, the Superior Court responded with a similar administrative order requiring all preliminary appearances be heard in Superior Court. The order explained that the move was necessary to avoid scheduling conflicts between the courts, clerks, jail staff and attorneys.
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen then filed a legal order seeking to compel Judge Tveit to rescind her previous directive and to recognize the validity of the Superior Court’s authority to hear all preliminary hearings.
But Tveit disregarded the directive and presided over the initial hearings on at least two criminal matters, according to court records.
In an effort to resolve the matter, Stevens County brought in Lincoln County Superior Court Judge John Strohmaier. He eventually sided with Tveit, ruling that a “preliminary appearance is part of a criminal case and once the district court assumes jurisdiction of a case through a filed criminal charge, the superior court is prohibited from exercising jurisdiction.”
Strohmaier’s ruling was appealed and oral arguments were heard on Jan. 30, Ferguson said.
“I think the reason (appellate judges) reached a decision so quickly was because it has quite a bit of gravity,” Ferguson said. “It has a very real effect on alleged victims and defendants. Without smooth operation and cooperation between district and superior courts, peoples’ safety were put at risk.”
In his argument before judges Pennell, Kevin Korsmo and Robert Lawrence-Berrey, Ferguson gave the example of a man who was arrested and jailed a year apart on the same criminal charge involving the same victim. The earlier case proceeded correctly, but orders by a Superior Court judge weren’t filed for the second arrest and the victim was placed in danger, he said.
Ephrata attorney Jerry Moberg argued the appeal on behalf of Tveit. A call to Moberg, who was out of the office Tuesday, was not immediately returned. Judge Tveit was presiding over a trial Tuesday. On Wednesday, her clerk directed questions about the decision to Moberg.
During her successful re-election campaign in November, Tveit accused Rasmussen and his office of an “unlawful expansion of prosecutorial power and influence, the result of which has been an endless barrage of mudslinging and personal attacks against Judge Gina Tveit.”
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